Jordan's historical heart beats the jihadi war drum

Jordan's historical heart beats the jihadi war drum
Known for its green fields and traditional Nablusi architecture, Salt is now becoming more associated with radical jihadi ideology.
4 min read
13 Nov, 2014
Jordan's Salafi movement has surprisingly widespread support [AFP]

Islamists in Jordan have traditionally been split between two rival camps. The largest Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, attracted moderately minded Muslims, while more radical Salafis were drawn to Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by a caliph.

However, a new group has emerged from the ashes of recent regional conflicts, with violent jihadi groups attracting new recruits from the traditional Islamist bosom. As the number of jihadis grew, they splintered into various factions, growing and shrinking according to the political climate of the Arab world. With jihadi forces on the offensive in Syria and Iraq, sympathetic groups in Jordan have ballooned to the point of bursting.

Explosive opinions

Jordan is not unique to this trend of explosive growth in support for extremist groups. One notable difference between the Hashemite kingdom and other Arab countries is just how visual and strong the Salafi movement is in public life.

Jordan has its own domestic Salafi movement, and many preachers from neighbouring Arab countries have made the kingdom a temporary home, but the country's closeness to arenas of jihad makes it unique.

For some reason, the one neighbour that has not been subject to the jihadis attention is Palestine. The founder of the combatant trend in political Islam, Abdullah Azzam, hailed from Palestine - and yet he chose to travel thousands of miles east to launch a jihad against the Soviet Union, the communist infidels, in Afghanistan, while leaving his native Palestine at the mercy of Israel.

I was aware that many Salafis in Jordan had shifted their loyalties to a more violent jihadi ideology, and that Azzam, formerly a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, was a founding figure of the Afghan jihadi movement - which would eventually sprout al-Qaeda.

What I did not know was that the Salafi movement in Jordan had provided thousands of fighters for the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) and al-Nusra Front's war in Syria and Iraq.

Once I would mock figures given by Arab and international newspapers, of the number of Jordanian combatants fighting for these two jihadi groups. However, after a recent visit to Jordan, I was shocked by just how widespread and powerful the jihadi message had become.

The inhabitants of [Maan] have traditionally had a thorny relationship with the Hashemite rulers

A desert camp

I was surprised to learn that what I believed was just media sensationalism and exaggerations from Jordanian intelligence, actually reflected the facts on the ground. Salafi and jihadi groups now have huge support in Jordan.

First of all, we need to lay the groundwork of how this phenomenon arose. The traditional belief was that the Muslim Brotherhood's main support base consisted of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, while the Salafi movement was dominated by East Bank Jordanians. There are exceptions, of course, to this rule - but it is accurate enough to describe the rough differences between the two trends.

I had always imagined that the stronghold of the Jordanian militant Salafi movement was the city of Maan, in the southern desert region of Jordan. Inhabitants of this city have traditionally had a thorny relationship with the Hashemite rulers, and being geographically closer to Saudi Arabia than Jordan's capital, it has followed the religious, usually Wahhabi, trends of its southern neighbour.

Relations between Maan residents and the Jordanian regime remain tense, and there have been underlying tensions in the city that have on occasion broken out into full-scale riots. This standoff does not seem to like it will be resolved any time soon. Desperately needed urban redevelopment would help end the citys' cultural isolation - often an enabler for radicalisation in Jordan.

Cosmopolitan warriors

Today, it is not Maan that is the main pillar of support for the Salafi-jihadi movement. It may have been true before, but now Maan's title as Jordan's capital of extremism is being contested by an unlikely source. That it is a picturesque, provincial city that lies close to Amman, makes it all the more surprising. How could Al-Salt, home to the first secondary school in the kingdom, and which remains relatively well off by Jordanian standards, become the fortress of extremism?

Al-Salt is inconsistent with the stereotypes about the subject. It is often said that Salafi-jihadism's main recruiting grounds were the rural backwaters and deprived urban slums of Jordan. Traditionally, they have never been able to penetrate the more cosmopolitan and urban parts of the country. This does not apply to Al-Salt, which was once considered to be a possible capital of the Emirate of Transjordan, before the honour went to Amman.

Experts on the Salafi movement in Jordan have no answers to explain Salt's spurt in support for extremist ideologies. Does this mean that Jordan is unwittingly creating a new brand of middle-class Salafism? Perhaps. But what is certain is that Jordan, knowingly or otherwise, has been sending thousands of fighters to Syria and Iraq, who will inevitably return to terrorise the people of Jordan and the government before too long.

Amjad Nasser is a poet and novelist. His latest book in English, "Land of no rain" is now available in paperback.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.